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NEWS ANALYSIS : Anti-Development Message Is Clear : Santa Monica: Voters thwarted projects that the city had solicited. Developers are expected to shy away from future ventures.

November 22, 1990|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The developers have gotten the message.

In the past 10 months, Santa Monica and its residents have pulled the rug out from under two high-profile commercial projects in which developers had already invested more than $7 million.

In both cases, the developers had been invited by the city to build the projects on parcels of public land and were given reason to expect clear sailing through the city approval process.

"People will think long and hard before they get involved in attempting projects in Santa Monica," said Henry A. Lambert, president of Reliance Development Corp., the New York company whose earlier approval for a large office complex at Santa Monica Municipal Airport was revoked by the City Council early this year. The council reversed its course after residents opposed to the project had gathered enough petition signatures to force a referendum on the project.

"I don't know who is going to step up to the plate, given the city's track record of the last few years. It would be suicide," said a source who was involved with the second rejected project, restaurateur Michael McCarty's proposed $65-million beach hotel. That project's fate was sealed on Election Day, when voters strongly supported Proposition Z, thereby repealing tentative approval already granted by the City Council.

The anti-development activists who fought the projects say that bringing development to such a screeching halt is exactly what is needed. And, exhilarated by their success of the last 10 months, they are turning to what they say is the next big fight: a proposed major expansion by the RAND Corp.

The renowned nonprofit research firm, which has been based in Santa Monica since its founding in 1946, has tentative plans to nearly triple the size of its complex, which is right across from City Hall on Main Street.

RAND representatives and city officials have already negotiated extensively, because RAND's expansion is regarded as a key component of a master plan for the entire Civic Center district, which stretches from Colorado Avenue south to Pico Boulevard, and from Ocean Avenue east to 4th Street. In addition to RAND, the district encompasses City Hall, a county courthouse and the city's Civic Auditorium.

The city has set up a citizen advisory group to help prepare the master blueprint for development, and some of the advisers are bracing for a fight.

"I told our members that if they thought the McCarty hotel project was a war, the controversy over the RAND site will make that look like a street-corner brawl," said panel member Merritt Coleman, who says he opposes such a large project unless the city can come up with a way to deal with the increase in traffic and other impacts.

Several prominent members of the city's slow-growth coalition also made clear at a news conference shortly after the election that they expect RAND to be the next major battlefront in the development war.

"It is completely inappropriate, without master-planning the whole Civic Center area, to even consider what they are proposing," activist and unsuccessful City Council candidate Sharon Gilpin said of RAND.

Noting that several large-scale development projects approved by the city have not yet been completed, Gilpin said the last thing Santa Monica needs is more office space or retail shops such as RAND proposes.

Until recently, Santa Monica has been a mecca for commercial developers because of its receptiveness to big projects and its unbeatable locale--on the beach in the heart of an affluent market, with good freeway access to Los Angeles International Airport, downtown Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Century City.

The prevailing view among city officials was that commercial development, if accompanied by stiff development fees, was a fairly painless way to finance the city's ambitious array of social service programs.

But no more. If there were any lingering doubts, the election put an end to them. The anti-development message contained in the strong votes for Proposition S, banning nearly all commercial development on or near the beach, and Proposition Z, killing the McCarty hotel, was unmistakable.

Councilman Kenneth Genser, an outspoken anti-growth activist, said the passage of the two propositions amounted to a direct attack on the "cozy relationship between developers and politicians."

About the only form of new development likely to find favor with the anti-development coalition, Gilpin said, are projects that will create affordable housing.

But others say that by putting the brakes on development, voters and slow-growth advocates may be inadvertently shutting down the engine that has made the city hum.

"I believe this city needs to have a healthy business sector to continue to provide the high level of services our citizens demand," said Christine E. Reed, a veteran City Council member who lost her bid for reelection, in part because of attacks that branded her as being too pro-development.

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